When our first child was born, immediately I started trying to figure out who he looked like – if he looked like my husband or if he looked like me. To my dismay, he looked exactly like my husband! I’ve gotten over it since then. But as time passes, I find myself still looking into his face and looking for signs of myself. I think to myself: he came out of me, and I am a partner in his creation – so where am I in him?
But, after studying this week’s Torah portion, Bo, I learn an important lesson.
arik einstein-uf gozal-Fly, Chick-Hebrew + English Lyrics
The tradition pidyon haben - the redeeming of the first born - is a ceremony that takes place if the first child is a boy and is born through natural childbirth. The parents “redeem” their first born son through giving a symbolic amount of money to a Cohen, reminiscent of the redeeming of the first born from service in the Temple in ancient times. We learn about this ceremony in the book of Numbers (18:15-16), “Every first issue of the womb of any creature, which they present to the Lord, whether of man or beast, shall be yours. However, you shall redeem the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. Its redemption [shall be performed] from the age of a month, according to the valuation, five shekels of silver, according to the holy shekel….”
Why did the Jews have to redeem their sons from service in the Temple? The answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. We read this week about the final plagues in Egypt – locusts, darkness, and the last and most cruel plague of all – the death of the first born. After this plague, it is written (Exodus 13:2, 13), “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, every one that opens the womb among the children of Israel among man and among animals; it is Mine…. and every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.”
G-d then adds an instruction to parents (13:14), “And it will come to pass if your son asks you in the future, saying, "What is this?" you shall say to him, "With a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” And the reason for doing this is, (13:15), “And it came to pass when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us out, the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I slaughter [for a sacrifice] all male [animals] that open the womb, and every firstborn of my sons I will redeem.”
What is G-d’s message in the matter of the first born? What are we supposed to learn from this mitzvah?
Rashi, the great commentator that lived in the 11th Century in Northern France, explains the phrase “it is Mine” in this way: “For myself I acquired them through my slaying of the first born sons of Egypt.” G-d controls the first born, both those of the Egyptians and those of the Israelites. G-d killed the first born of Egypt, but the first born of Israel He acquired to serve Him. The power and the decision lie in G-d’s hands and not in the hands of human beings.
The mitzvah of pidyon haben (redeeming the first born) teaches us that our children are not really ours, not completely.
We speak all the time using the wording “my son” or “our daughter”. It’s true – they are the fruit of our seed and our wombs and we raise them, nurture them, and worry about them our entire lives. We invest a lot of money and time in them, and we sleep much less because of them. But, in all of this, our children are never only ours.
And they prove this fact all the time. When a baby begins to walk, he doesn’t need you to hold him. When a child goes to kindergarten, she doesn’t need you to play with her all the time. What the teenager gets his driver’s license, he doesn’t need you to take him everywhere (though he usually still asks for the car!). And when a daughter gets married, she stops asking her father for advice all the time.
This process is difficult for us, but it is important. Like Rabbi Baruch Epstein of Brobruisk wrote in “Torah Temima” in the 19th Century, “As it was said (also in the Torah portion R’eh), ‘Every first born…you will sanctify to YHWH your G-d.’ (This means) that if you do not sanctify him, he will not be holy.” We don’t bring children into this world solely for our own entertainment or to serve us or for any other selfish purpose. We bring children to this world in order to serve a higher purpose.
To sanctify means to give, to separate or to set aside. From birth onward, somehow, all of life is a process of separating from our children.
In the Talmud tractate Nidah (31a) it is written, “There are three partners in (the creation of) a human – G-d, his father, and his mother.” We did not create our children alone, and it follows that we alone do not direct their fates. In the pidyon haben ceremony – precisely at the beginning of the journey of parenthood – G-d reminds us not to take advantage of our children for selfish purposes. They don’t belong only to us but rather they mainly belong to their own unique fate, to find their way in the world to the place that they will bring themselves. In the end, if they are similar to us, great. But if they’re not, then that’s OK, too.
I hope that my children will be who they are in their life. I give thanks everyday for their existence. When we held our pidyon haben ceremony for our son, we chose to do it as part of his one-year-old birthday party (and we would have done it as well if our firstborn was a daughter). It was a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on parenthood a year after we had begun and on the values upon which we wished to build our family life.
In our act of “redeeming” him from full-time service to G-d, we also reminded ourselves that he does not belong fully to us - that to be a parent is not an automatic right, but rather it is a privilege that comes with responsibility. I appreciate all of my children's presence in our lives, but I act with the consciousness that in order for them to fulfill the mission of their lives, I need to dedicate myself to help them to be holy – to help them find their own place in the world to be who they are as individuals with their own special mission.
Rabbi Stacey Blank, Kehillat Tzur Hadassah.
19 January 2018, 3 Shvat, 5778